Yes, that was Heather Tom walking down Michigan Avenue this week! The Hinsdale native is a multi-award winning actor, director, and star of daytime’s The Bold and The Beautiful. She was in town to appear on Fox’s Good Day, Chicago and WCIU’s You & Me This Morning with news about her movie directing debut, Serenity.
Serenity is about winding your way through the darker tunnels of the human soul and fighting for a glimpse of light. At just under seventeen minutes, the film is technically a short, but it carries a lifetime of heart, regrets and powerful redemptive moments.
The film centers on Dane (Vince Nappo) who descends into opioid and heroin addiction. He is struggling to reconcile the considerable damage to his family with his desire to resurrect his life. The action all happens at an unconventional 12-step-like meeting in a desolate warehouse. The heat that has seared the family’s spirit is palpable. In a case of life imitating art, Serenity was filmed on one of the hottest days of an L.A. summer with fires raging in the distance and ash in the sky.
Comedy fans will recognize Vince for his role as Steve Gileski in this summer’s Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here about the ‘70s comedy boom.
Comedy fans may also know that Heather’s first television role was on Who’s the Boss in 1989 when she was only fourteen. Her episode, “Heather Can Wait,” launched one of the most award-winning careers in television.
At fifteen, she won the role of the complex, turbulent Victoria Newman on CBS’s The Young and the Restless. She won an Emmy the next year.
Her career continued as Kelly Cramer Buchanan on ABC’s One Life to Live. In 2007, she returned to CBS to play Katie Logan on The Bold and the Beautiful. As Katie, she has won Emmy Awards three years in a row for “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.” She is the only television actor to win Emmys in all three performer categories and broke a record as the most Emmy-nominated actress under the age of forty.
Talent runs in the family. Heather’s sister is Nicholle Tom from The Nanny. Her brother is David Tom who played Kelly Buchanan’s brother on One Life to Live. Heather and David made television history as daytime’s only siblings playing siblings, and the only brother/sister duo to earn Emmy nominations in the same year.
More proof that talent runs in the family? In Serenity, Heather’s four year-old son turns in a remarkably poignant performance as Dane’s brother.
Heather also directs episodes of The Bold and Beautiful and has appeared on Broadway. She is known for volunteering her time generously to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, Rock the Vote, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, and for her testimony before Congress on behalf of Planned Parenthood.
Serenity combines Heather’s love of the arts with her passion for stepping up and speaking out. Her goal is to focus public awareness on the dangers of opioid over-prescription and its relation to the country’s heroin epidemic.
Heather kindly spoke with me by phone about her life in television, the art of directing, and what we can each do to turn around a deadly tide.
Teme: How did your first television role on Who’s the Boss come about?
Heather: In 1989, my brother and I came to Los Angeles for three weeks for pilot season and we never went home. We started working and my first job was on Who’s the Boss? I was with Danny Pintauro and I had my first kiss. It was a very fun role.
Teme: What is your favorite memory of it?
Heather: I worked a lot as a kid [actor] in Chicago and in Seattle, so it was fun being on a big Hollywood set.
Teme: What about your family produced such creative kids?
Heather: Oh boy, I don’t know! My mother especially was very creative and always encouraged pretend play. We always had to entertain ourselves, so I think that fostered a lot of creativity.
Teme: With The Bold and the Beautiful filming 250 episodes a year, how do you memorize new lines on a daily basis and what are your energy secrets for keeping the creativity flowing through such a long calendar?
Heather: I’ve really enjoyed playing a character for a long period of time. Daytime [television] is unique in that characters take on lives of their own.
These characters have their own histories. You don’t have to make anything up. It’s all right there. I think that for me, I’ve been doing this for so long that memory is a muscle and the more you use it, the better it is. You use it or you lose it.
Teme: What are your favorite things about Katie Logan?
Heather: She’s a very dynamic character. She started off as this very insecure, mousy girl who lived in her sister’s shadow. She has grown into a woman who can stand on her own two feet and has ambitions of her own. I like playing a character that changes a lot over time.
Teme: When it comes to directing, how do movies and television compare?
Heather: I’ve been directing B and B for about a year and half now. It’s like throwing yourself into the fire. It’s so fast and we have to be responsible for so many things. It’s a great training ground for anything else that you want to do. Film is a much slower pace.
Teme: Your son was so wonderful in Serenity. I noticed at one point as he’s listening to Dane, he gives Dane a look and your son’s expression was so poignant and perfect. Was that part of your direction or did it just happen naturally?
Heather: My job as director is to make sure that when those moments happen, I’m right there capturing them. So when something like that, which is not scripted, comes up you grab it and use it.
Vince Nappo, who plays our lead character, is just fantastic. He’s an amazing actor. I trusted his instincts. He came in and he was so prepared. There’s an eleven page monologue and we were able to do it in just a couple of takes.
Teme: When did you know you had to make this film?
Heather: It’s a subject that’s near to me. This epidemic hasn’t left anyone unscathed. This is an epidemic that’s touching every part of society and you can’t get away from it. I look at my son and he has so much promise. There’s so much future ahead of him. It terrifies me that one bad choice can lead to a wasted life.
With opiates in particular, it’s not something you can compartmentalize. You can’t say, oh, that’s an urban problem or a rural problem or what happens if you don’t have economic means. It is soccer moms and accountants and football heroes. It touches everyone. As a parent, I find that particularly terrifying. So I wanted to tell this story of this boy that has everything going for him and this thing obliterates whatever promise he ever had. As a mom, I think that’s probably the most terrifying thing I could think of.
Teme: I live in Chicago’s north suburbs, and it’s an epidemic here. I have a friend whose son died of a heroin overdose when he was twenty.
Heather: I really don’t know anyone that hasn’t been touched by this in some way, either extremely personally or by a very short separation.
I can’t even tell you how many people have come up to me after they’ve seen this film and said, “My son … my aunt … myself … we are in recovery” or “we’ve lost this person” or “many people.” It’s pervasive and really terrifying. We can’t be complacent about it because it’s obliterating entire communities. We’ve got to do something as a nation to combat it because it’s not going to stop on its own.
Teme: What can we do as individuals?
Heather: We need to put pressure on our lawmakers and we need to be doing it in a much louder way. I don’t want to get too political here, but the fact is there’s no money to battle this in the health care bill that’s being proposed.
We need to pressure our lawmakers for stricter standards for prescribing these types of medications. It needs to start at a policy level and that has to come from the public and personal stories like the one that you just said about your friend whose son died of an overdose.
We need to keep having those discussions so that our politicians can’t turn a blind eye to it. This is not a red or blue issue. This is everybody. It is nonpartisan. It is across every party and economic line.
Teme: What should patients know about the risks of opioids?
Heather: I’m not a doctor. I can’t speak to what people should be prescribed or shouldn’t be prescribed, but I can say that when my mom had surgery she came home with fifty of these things and never needed that many.
Thankfully for her, she didn’t end up taking them because she didn’t like the way they made her feel, and she also didn’t feel she needed them. So then she just had these pills lying around the house.
If she had been somebody else, maybe she would have taken them. The addiction rate is just through the roof with stuff like this. Earlier there wasn’t a realization of how addictive [these drugs] are, but there is certainly the information now and it needs to affect how it is being prescribed.
Teme: Who is the audience for your film? It sounds like it’s absolutely everybody!
Heather: Yes, I think so. I want to keep the dialogue going. If we can use the film as an educational tool or to inspire activism or policy, then that’s my goal.
Teme: In the end credits you thank “everyone who worked in the brutal heat.” What is the story behind that?
Heather: We shot the film almost a year ago in downtown LA inside a warehouse. There was no air conditioning, and it was 110 degrees. It was one of the hottest weekends of the year. The whole city was on fire. I lost five pounds that weekend. But it was all good. I can’t really complain about anything. Everyone was amazing and really came through for me. I definitely owe them a big, big thank you.
Teme: The world feels so treacherous, especially these days. As a parent, what gives you hope?
Heather: This is my theory about all of it. As a parent, you have to do the best you can to give your child values and to teach them responsibility and work ethic. Then you have to trust them to make good decisions. That’s the hardest part because we do stupid things when we’re young. We think we’re not being stupid and then we look back and we’re like, “Wow, that was a really stupid choice.”
But as a parent, you have to go, well, they’re going to mess up. You do what you can and then you just have to trust the rest of it. I think that’s the hard part. As parents, we want to rush in and fix everything. That can be the worst thing you can do. I have to work on letting him fail and make mistakes. He knows that if that happens, he can come to me and I can help.
Teme: There are so many causes that need attention. How do we decide where and when to best to use our energy?
Heather: You have to choose your battles. There are certain things that are nearer and dearer to my heart. But I think things like making a film like Serenity or calling your congressperson every day are as important as showing up and getting your picture taken at an event.
Teme: Speaking of serenity, the “Serenity Prayer” is part of the film. In what situations do you find it helpful? I always think I’ll remember to draw on that philosophy, but then I forget.
Heather: Well, I think that’s just who we are as human beings. We try to strive for something. Then we fall down and we get back up. For me, that prayer is about letting go and just being in the moment, right there where you’re supposed to be. That’s a really hard thing for me to do sometimes. So for me, it’s trying to be present and not try to control the things that I cannot control. So it’s a centering thing. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail at it, but I think it’s a good creed to live by.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” -Reinhold Niebuhr
Teme: You mentioned that people have come up to you come after the film. What has been the most memorable encounter so far?
Heather: A very dear friend of mine, her daughter is a heroin addict and I had no idea. She saw the film and said, “I have to talk to you.” She’s someone whose opinion I really value, so I thought, “Oh my God, did she not like it?” She said, “I can’t talk to you about this over the phone. I have to talk about it in person.” She told me, “My daughter has been dealing with this. She’s been on and off heroin for five years.”
Her daughter doesn’t live in town and I just had no clue. It was so shocking to hear. She said, “I watched [Serenity] and I could see my child in that.” The reaction has been kind of crazy across the board, just how many people have a connection to this subject.
Teme: I hope her daughter will be okay.
Heather: It’s really tough. It’s a really hard thing to beat. It’s almost impossible and I think that’s why it’s terrifying for a parent and then so painful for someone who’s in the middle of it. She really wants to stop, but can’t.
Teme: You’ll be in Chicago soon. What do you like to do when you’re here?
Heather: We have family there, so I’ll probably stay with them. I love to go down Michigan Avenue and have lunch. It’s such a beautiful city and I miss it. It was a great place to grow up. I’m looking forward to having a few days there. I think I’m going to bring my son, too.
Teme: What else would you like audiences to know about Serenity?
Heather: We’ll be doing the festival circuit. Eventually, the film will be up online. I hope that people get involved and if they have a personal story or if they have a connection to this, that they call their congresspeople to let them know that they have to take action and pay attention to what’s going on.
Here is Heather’s appearance this week on Good Day, Chicago. Watch for her the week of July 31 on WCIU’s You & Me This Morning.
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